How we set off to hitchhike the border between Albania and Montenegro, ended up crossing three borders, accidentally turned up in Croatia, and then got stuck in no mans land at the border, at midnight in torrential rain.
And if there was ever a better sentence in the English sentence, I would love to see it…
I effing hate giving credit to fate for things working out perfectly, but someone somewhere had to have been having a laugh when I wound up being housed with Ramune at a couchsurfers place in Shkoder, Albania.
I’d just last-minute canceled a much anticipated trip into the Accursed Mountains (still one of the greatest regrets ever) while I was overcoming an illness (the woman equivalent of man flu. The one where it’s like the flu, but you’re not sick. Just lazy) , and decided to head northwards early.
As a result, Ramune and I met that night at our surfing host’s house; she, fresh off a hitchhiking trip from Kosovo with a truck driver who plucked her from the darkness after a previous – read: dodgy – driver left her on the side of the road, and me, fresh off a plush bus ride from Tirana.
Sure, I’d hitchhiked before – but never out of anything other than desperation, and never on my own. Afterall, a lone female traveler is tempting fate enough, without chucking out a thumb and leaving it to her drivers to decide if she’s looking for a ride or a ‘ride’. But after an hour or so of chatting over dinner, and listening to fascinating story after story, I knew I needed to throw caution to the wind again. So, after a day exploring the foothills of the Accursed Mountains, Ramune and I strapped on our backpacks and set off to find a good place to thumb a lift towards Tivat, Montenegro, where we both discovered we were headed.
We spent several wasted minutes with our thumbs out and grinning good-naturedly (read: creepily) at every passerby, only to be told shortly after a truck driver screeched on the brakes to let us in (and whose spacious cab looked luxurious), that we were on completely the wrong highway, and were attempting to get a lift backwards. Said truckie pointed us several kilometres back the way we came, where we hastily restarted our hitching clocks and started again.
Luckily, two older men seemed keen for a bit of banter on their Sunday drive to the border, and bundled us into their car. The downside was that neither of us spoke each other’s language, so any banter was provided in one of us nodding and pretending to understand the other’s incoherent ramblings, before it ceased altogether. Awkward silences aside, we reached the border and were hastily offloaded merrily enough, and before we knew it we were waiting at a tiny window to have our passports stamped.
As we stood and awaited our books to be passed back so we could continue forth, the border guard grew continually agitated with us, repeatedly gesturing at us to move along. Fearful we were about to fall victim to a bootlegged passport market, we stood our ground. Exasperated, the border guard barked at a nearby passenger, who had just exited his car for a stretch, and seemingly asked him to translate for us.
“Ah, he says you need to move to the next window to collect your passports. There, you’ll be in Montenegro.”
And just like that, we shuffled three feet to the right and arrived in Montenegro.
As bursting into unabashed laughter is probably not a great way to address a customs official, our new friend obviously took pity on us tempting arrest and asked if we needed a ride. We gratefully accepted – though our graciousness multiplied tenfold when we rounded the corner and found out our ride would be a brand-new sportscar that obviously cost more than our lives were currently worth.
As the countryside flew by and our rapport grew, several comments were made about us traveling forth to Croatia for lunch. It’s an absurd thought to hop countries for a bite to eat, but in Europe – everything’s so close you can have all three meals of the day in a different country, and then another for an aperitif.
Tivat whizzed by in the midst of our indecisiveness and before we knew it, we were on a boat being ferried across the entry into Kotor, on our way to Croatia. With only a few suspicious queries from the border guard when the New Zealand, Lithuania, English and Albanian passports were handed over together, we blitzed on to Dubrovnik – a place I’d always wanted to see and spend several days ambling around – where we stopped for seven minutes and then continued onward.
We searched through empty town after empty town, and it was 5pm before we found a nondescript place to settle in for some local fare – drinking wine and having a laugh as night fell. And then, as we collected our bags from the car in pitch black, the wine wore off and the gravity of the situation finally hit.
Here we were, hundreds of kilometres from where we were supposed to be, hours behind the time our hosts were expecting us, without a single street light to guide us, expecting to miraculously find someone willing to not only pick up two naive lone girls, but take them through a country border.
Yes, we were pretty f*cked.
Nonetheless, on a rather treacherous bend in the cold of a country we knew nothing about aside from its relatively good boil up, our thumbs went up.
Driver number one stopped after about half an hour – not a terrible wait time, considering. The old man was a chain smoker, drove a beat up old station wagon, and spoke only Russian – which, thankfully Ramune could converse in too. All comparisons to an axe-wielding, murderous Paul Bunyan-like character evaporated as I watched them giggle with each other from the back seat.
About an hour down the road, we were dropped at a petrol station, in a region cars were hardwired to speed through without a second look. As 45 minutes went by and we contemplated our fate, we heard a crack overhead – and the skies unceremoniously opened.
Just like a scene right out of a bad rom com, we stood under the hosing rain without the nous to put on a rain jacket, looking like utter shit, and stared longingly into the distance willing someone to want to hook (us) up (with a ride).
It was probably also at about this point we rued the day we ever agreed to go to Croatia (approx two hours ago).
As standing on the side of the road reached “dance like an idiot and hope someone takes pity on your manic breakdown” level, a car finally screeched to a stop. Rachel just so happened to be an even bigger fan of Lord of the Rings than Tolkien himself, so as soon as she recognised my Kiwi accent, we were in. Bypassing her hometown, and zooming us all the way back to the Croatia/ Montenegro border, we were feeling optimistic as we checked our watches and estimated we could be back in Tivat by 10pm at the latest. But because, for no other reason than I wouldn’t be writing about this unless something went horribly wrong – something went horribly wrong.
After trying our luck with several travelers who pulled up to the border, who responded with disgusted looks or no looks at all, we set our bags down at the border station and thanked the heavens for the roof over our heads – the only thing seemingly in a six mile radius to provide shelter from the torrential downpour. We’d befriended one of the border guards with some gentle banter, and as we searched the horizon for incoming headlights, we noticed him coming over for some more chat.
“Excuse me ladies, but you can’t stay here. Boss says you have to leave.”
Clearly our chat was not good enough for Montenegro.
Our expectant smiles fell as he jerked his head towards a squat woman in the booth, and our earlier jovial moods turned immediately to desperate pleading. Unsurprisingly, he was having none of it, and we made mental notes to never bestow upon border guards our best lines quite so quickly, without testing them in extreme weather conditions again. We trudged out into the weather, looking over our shoulders to plead with our eyes like scorned puppies, as the rain drenched within seconds things that had taken hours to get half-way dry.
When the eye-pleading failed to work, we flipped the bird instead, and half ran towards what looked like another border booth. Luckily, there were no unwelcoming guards to bat us away here, and if we took it in turns to stand under the slender roof, one of us could remain relatively rain-free at intermittent times. Until the direction changed, which it did so approximately every 2 minutes, in which case we both just let our tears mix with the falling rain. Luckily, Ramune had her Polaroid camera to document all this.
From there, we worked in shifts to run out into The Flood to wave down each car that approached. I can only imagine each of them assumed we were the caveats to the opening credits of a horror movie, as each hissed in our direction and kept driving. After an hour stuck in no-man’s land, we began to contemplate heading for the nearby scrubbery and rustling up a makeshift shelter made of soggy branches, until a pony-tailed God Among Us screeched his car to a halt as Ramune waved him down, and agreed to give us a lift. Screaming in triumph and doing a little jig in the rain almost lost him again, so we hastily jumped in before he realised we were actually, quite insane.
But, mark my words, I’ll never forget the ride with that terrifically-maned man, the Khal Drogo lookalike who stopped at a shop to buy us chocolate and energy drinks and entertained us with hard-talking banter the whole two hour journey.
By midnight, we’d persuaded Ramune’s bewildered host to take us both in for the night, and were wrapped up warm and dry under the blissful roof of an actual house. Four and a half hours late or not, we’d managed to score a free trip to Croatia, forced many others into becoming our new friends, and evaded becoming homeless junkies in no man’s land for one more day.
And, if nothing else, I’ve pretty much written the plot-line for Taken 4 now.
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